WASHINGTON, D.C. — Indiana thought it had experienced everything when it escaped the brutal Big Ten Conference with the outright title.Then the Hoosiers started looking at videotape of Syracuse’s stingy zone defense.
“We don’t see a lot of 2-3 zones like this,” said senior guard Jordan Hulls on the eve of Indiana's Sweet 16 game with Syracuse at the Verizon Center here.
“They’re very long, very athletic; they close out to balls a lot faster than what we’ve seen."
Syracuse's zone defense is unlike any other. It has given Big East coaches fits since Jim Boeheim became the Syracuse head coach in 1976. Players swing their long arms nimbly in pursuit of the ball, putting plenty of pressure on the offense.
Still, Indiana is favored in the NCAA East Regional semifinal match that gets underway at 9:45 p.m. Thursday. To live up to that expectation, they will have to overcome the Syracuse defense.
What makes the Orange's zone so to daunting?
Mostly the athletes Boeheim recruits to play it. The shortest player in Syracuse's starting lineup is Brandon Triche at 6-foot-4. The front line of C.J. Fair (6-8), James Southerland (6-8) and Rakeem Christmas (6-9) is capable of flying around and trapping in the corners.
“They like to get up in your face," said Indiana forward Will Sheehey. "They get out and challenge passing lanes, they don’t pack it in. It’s almost like a pressure 2-3 zone.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean competed against the Syracuse zone when he was at Marquette from 1999-2008. But he said that doesn't necessarily give him an advantage.
“I don’t think you can look at that zone and think you’re going to beat it any one way,” Crean said. "I (also) don’t think you can look at the zone and think you can stand around and pass the ball around the perimeter either. That is a recipe for defeat.”
The Hoosiers have spent a good part of their week preparing for Syracuse's pressure but they are also trying to maintain a normal pre-game workout routine. The players said they want to make sure they don’t psyche themselves out in anticipation of the zone defense.
“We’re gonna move the ball and hit open shots,” said forward Derek Elston. “That’s kinda been the key all year, and I don’t think anything’s going to change.”
The way to conquer the Syracuse zone is to make perimeter shots. Hulls, one of Indiana's best outside shooters, looked good in practice after suffering a right shoulder injury in Sunday’s win over Temple. He did not appear to favor the shoulder.
“It’s feeling good,” said Hulls. “Once it got loose, I was able to shoot well. The doctors are doing a great job of getting me back in shape, feeling well.”
The Indiana-Syracuse matchup is the first time they've met since the 1987 national championship game -- when Indiana’s Keith Smart hit a baseline shot to beat the Orange at the end.
Sheehey said the Hoosiers are well aware of that game and shot because it is played in their locker room before every game.
“It means a lot for any of those guys to be compared to any of us,” said Sheeney. “We always look up in Assembly Hall and see the banners, and we know the correlation."
By the way, John Harbaugh, head coach of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, watched Indiana’s open practice session, and said he will attend the game with Syracuse.
“I love these players,” said Harbaugh. “I’ve got a plane ticket to Atlanta, but I’m not going if the Hoosiers don’t go.”
Atlanta is the site of the NCAA Final Four.
Justin Albers is a sportswriter for the Anderson, Ind., Herald Bulletin.